“Take a kid with a dream. A legendary hip hop group. A cultural crisis that saw social and technological changes reshape the economics and experience of music. Six years of secret recordings. A casing worthy of a king. A single artefact. Hallowed establishment institutions. An iconoclastic auction house. The world’s foremost museum of modern art. A bidding war. Endless crisis of conscience. An angry mob. A furious beef. A sale. A villain of Lex Luthor-like proportions. Bill Murray. The FBI. The internet gone fucking wild.”
Somewhere in the climactic section of this oddball work of non-fiction is a paragraph that sums up the promise of this book. Seriously, how good does all of that sound? The story of the single copy album (the titular Once Upon a Time) that the Wu-Tang Clan put out to the highest bidder only to find it being purchased by America’s number one asshole.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, written by Cyrus Bozorgmehr is a book for which the term “not without its issues” was invented. He’s a knowledgable, insightful guide through the story, and he manages to get across at least the very core of the idea that The Wu Tang Clan were going for when they decided on the single copy album; he’s a funny, loud character and the book reads like a guy at a party telling you his wildest story.
The problem is, you sort of want the guy to go away and stop.
Bozorgmehr is an exuberant storyteller, but one who remains at an arm’s length throughout the story. He seems to be more on the periphery of the most interesting moments rather than in the mix, and occasionally I found myself questioning how much of a right he had to tell this story. There’s a scene midway through the book which finds him and Cilvaringz, a producer on the album, travelling through airport security. Bozorgmehr has a few issues getting through customs, but Cilvaringz gets called off for a “random search”. What happens there? We don’t know, as Bozorgmehr never relays anything to us that he isn’t directly involved in. Too often I found myself asking, is this a story about The Wu Tang Clan, or Bozorgmehr, and too often I found myself feeling a distance between the author and the project.
Even more troublesome is the section in which Martin Shkreli appears. America’s public enemy number one, and the guy who winds up buying the album. Those who know little about his background won’t come away with much of an idea of him after reading the book. Bozorgmehr tells you Shkreli’s story, that’s for sure, but his own personal opinion of the guy remains somewhat ambiguous, which is strange when our narrator up until that point has had an opinion about just about everything else. There are some moments when I felt that Bozorgmehr had a kind of respect for Shkreli.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin then, reads like the evaluation of an arts project rather than the rollercoaster ride that we’re promised. The broad sweeps of it are all there, but it’s not quite as interesting as the author wants you to think.
Any Cop?: The story remains fascinating. One album sold at auction to the worst human being alive. It’s a cinematic, compelling narrative even when you just read the Wikipedia page about it. The book never quite justifies its own existence though, so mark this down as a maybe.